Saint Paul, MN
In July of 2012 I retired and, as readers of this blog know, began traveling extensively in January of 2013. I have also been seeking out volunteer opportunities that would still allow for travel. Periodically in 2013 and 2014 I would do some volunteer work for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service. As we cut back on our travels this year, I have been able to increase that volunteer work. In the words of the website for the Mississippi National River and Recreations Area, “In the middle of a bustling urban setting, this 72 mile river park offers quiet stretches for fishing, boating and canoeing. Other spots are excellent for bird watching, bicycling and hiking. And there are plenty of visitor centers that highlight the history and science of the Mississippi River. If you are interested in the Mississippi River, this is a great place to start your exploration.”
The National Park Service and Amtrak cooperate on a program called Trails and Rails. In this program, volunteers from local national parks provide a combination of education, enlightenment, and entertainment on 25 to 30 Amtrak passenger routes around the United States. Our Amtrak passenger train travels between Chicago Illinois and Seattle Washington and is called the Empire Builder. The Empire Builder train is named after James J Hill, the founder of the Great Northern Railway. His efforts in making his railroad successful had a tremendous impact on the growth of the Midwest and Northwest. He was heavily involved in promoting Glacier National Park and his company ran the concession lodging there for many years. Here in St. Paul, our national park, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, is one of those sponsors with Amtrak for a Trails and Rails program.
20 volunteers from the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, myself included, take turns providing the service from May 1 to September 1, Monday through Thursday. The program here is in its seventh year. Two volunteers will ride each train going from St. Paul Minnesota to Columbus Wisconsin. The train leaves St. Paul Union Depot around 8:15 AM. The train normally will arrive in Columbus Wisconsin around 1:15 PM. The volunteers wait a few hours and then board the returning westbound train at Columbus around 5:15 PM and arrive in St. Paul around 10 PM. Volunteers must monitor the progress of the eastbound train before it arrives in St. Paul, since overnight lodging is not provided. If the train is too late, the volunteers will not be able to catch the return train. For instance, this year, forest fires in Washington closed down the tracks to all train traffic, not just Amtrak, for several days. When the train is too late, we do not make the trip, or get off prior to Columbus. The eastbound train will frequently encounter delays as it goes through the mountains. It does not get priority over freight traffic and may have to wait for freight trains, and particularly oil tanker trains to go through. Track maintenance work will also require slower speeds through construction zones.
The Trails and Rails program out of St. Paul is dictated by the Amtrak schedule. There is no value in running a program at night when people are sleeping and no views outside the window are possible. The Empire Builder traveling between St. Paul and Columbus offers several hours of viewing of the Mississippi River, which is the purpose of our park here in St. Paul. The sights are beautiful, whether seeing a sunset over Lake Pepin or just viewing the river and farmlands. In the words of Mark Twain: ““Neither in this country nor in any other, have I seen such interesting scenery as that along the Upper Mississippi. One finds all that the Hudson affords-bluffs and wooded highlands-and a great deal in addition.. Every hour brings something new.”
So this year, I began as one of the 20 volunteers on the Empire Builder Trails and Rails. Training includes a six-hour classroom session, a two-hour train ride introduction, two trips on the train from St. Paul to Columbus with experienced volunteers, and a package of information to provide the starting material for your own narration. We are expected to provide narration, not read the material in the handouts. Thus the volunteer has the requirement and the opportunity to personalize the presentation. I was reassured by the fact that two volunteers always travel together and that we are not expected to be talking constantly. The presentation is made in the upper level of the lounge car. This car has higher dome windows to provide a better view. This type of car is normally not seen in the eastern United States due to lower bridge heights the trains pass under in the eastern half of the U.S.
One of my initial concerns was whether the passengers in the dome/lounge car would be irritated by our conversation and how receptive they would be to the presentations. After the first several rides in which we were applauded when we got off in Columbus; or overhearing passengers say “I did not know that”; or hearing passengers discuss your comments by themselves later during the trip made me realize that the effort was worthwhile and well received. Personally, I still have some trepidation each time a new trip starts but these are starting to go away. I continue to add to my own narration copy and work on my ability to know when to present various topics. I have over 50 pages of narrative by now. I do not intend to try to put that all in this post. I will highlight a few comments as an example of the information types we present. Even during my presentation, not all material gets presented. Some of my narrative is a fuller background on a locale but in speaking, I summarize the material. Based on the audience, if the view is being blocked by other trains on neighboring tracks, or whatever, not all material is presented.
First, we talk about geology; there are interesting examples along the way. One of the areas that is mentioned I was completely unaware of prior to this activity. This is the so-called famous Driftless Area, particularly of Wisconsin. The upper portions of the United States have been covered by several glaciers over the past millennia. However, the last, or fourth, glacier did not descend as far south as the previous ones. Glaciers move sediment and rocks along with them, this has been categorized as glacial drift. Since the fourth, and last, glacier did not descend as far south, this un-glaciated area of Wisconsin, and a small portion of Minnesota, is called the Driftless Area. It has impacts for landscape and produces different topography then the glaciated area.
Second, we talk about the Mississippi River. We discuss its length, shipping in the 1800s, current barge traffic, wildlife along the river, and particularly, bald eagles. I mention the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge which is a major protective area for migratory birds. This wildlife refuge also has an interesting Facebook page.
Third, we pass Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. This is a large National Guard training base which was also used by the army for training troops prior to being sent to the Middle East. There is even a reproduction of a Middle Eastern village that is partially visible from the train.
Fourth, we talk about the history of various times. For instance, Portage Wisconsin is a point where the early French explorers transferred from the Fox River to the Wisconsin River in their efforts to explore the Upper Midwest and discover a passage to the Pacific ocean. Lumbering, agriculture, shipping and railroads played important roles in the development of most of the communities along the route of the Empire Builder.
Fifth, miscellaneous bits of relevant trivia are scattered throughout. For instance; it takes 10 pounds of milk to produce one pound of cheese, 12 pounds of milk to make a gallon of ice cream, and 22 pounds of milk to make a pound of butter.
Sixth, we offer youngsters the opportunity to become Junior Rangers. There is a Junior Ranger booklet designed for this route and one of the volunteers normally walks the train, letting parents know the program exists and asking if they would like a booklet for their child(ren). Upon answering the questions, spotting various landmarks and items unique to this route, and completing some drawings, the child will be made a Junior Ranger with a badge. We normally announce their first name and ask the riders in the lounge car to join us in applauding them.
So who is riding the Empire Builder? Well, college students are one frequent group traveling to and from their school. International travelers are often on board, sometimes taking long journeys like the fellow who started in South America, came up the Pacific Coast to Seattle, and was heading towards Montreal. Families on vacation, such as the family from the Winona area, parents and three teenagers, heading down to Chicago for a surprise weekend vacation. Amish, sometimes traveling in groups to weddings and other family get-together. People who enjoy riding trains and who do not have strict timetables to meet like the couple traveling to a convention in New Orleans from Seattle. Less frequently at the moment, but still present, are workers in the North Dakota oil fields who stay there for months and then go home to see the family.
Those who start their journey in Seattle or Portland will be on the train for 48 hours. They board in Seattle or Portland around 4:40 PM, ride through the night, the entire next day and night, arrive in St. Paul around 8 AM of the following day and enter Chicago about 4 PM. 48 hours but parts of three days.
A final note. I am not a paying passenger but I will say that all of the Amtrak personnel I have encountered have been extremely kind and helpful. Thanks for making our work so pleasant.
For another perspective on the Trails and Rail program, read the article in the Minneapolis Star/Tribune of August 11, 2015 written by reporter James Walsh and photographs by Rachel Woolf.
Mississippi National River and Recreation Area: http://www.nps.gov/miss/index.htm
Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge: http://www.fws.gov/refuge/upper_mississippi_river/
Ed Heimel St. Paul, August 10, 2015